Safe Spaces in BC’s Interior

Working with LGBT youth to promote mental health

Wendy Hulko, PhD, MSW, Kari Bepple, Jenny Turco, BSW and Natalie Clark, MSW, RSW

Reprinted from "LGBT" issue of Visions Journal, 2009, 6 (2), pp. 27-29

Kari is Coordinator of Safe Spaces at Interior Community Services in Kamloops, where she brings her passion and creativity to supporting LGBT youth and their allies.

Jenny is a Population Health Facilitator with the Interior Health Authority. She focuses on injury prevention, with a particular interest in addressing suicide prevention among youth ages 10 to 24 years.

Natalie is a faculty member in the Human Service department at Thompson Rivers University and Director of TRU’s Centre for Community-Based Youth Health Research. She is a researcher and practitioner in the area of youth health, with a particular focus on youth who are marginalized or have experienced trauma.

We are service providers, researchers and educators who work with youth that identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, two-spirit, intersex, queer or questioning (LGBT).* The following quotes from LGBT youth in the Interior highlight some of what we see and hear on a regular basis.1

“I’m living in [small city] right now and it’s very redneck—people screaming at you, swearing, cussing, giving me the finger—that’s normal.”2

“I think Kamloops is better than [my hometown], but it’s definitely harder in different ways, I think, than where we grew up. In [my hometown] we didn’t know anyone else that was gay at all growing up and—well I had one gay friend, but that was it—and then Kamloops is better, but it takes a while to realize who, like where to go, where not to go.” 2

“Even phoning like Kids Help Phone . . . I have had a few people hang up on me. . . . You try to reach out to somebody. You are crying. . . . I was almost ready to lose it and I was on the edge literally and she was like, “Oh, you’re 21. I can’t help you.” And I am like, “What do I do, call the after-hours line?” So I call the after-hours line, and they are like, “It’s after hours so leave a message and someone will get back to you in the morning as soon as possible” . . . that’s great for two in the morning when I am thinking . . . I want to go smash my car or jump off a bridge or something ’cause I feel like I don’t even exist. . . . There are no resources here or any kind of outreach for gay youth, or anything.”3

“Safe Spaces is the only program that I know of, and it has actually been a life-saver. I hit rock bottom and mean literally rock bottom. I was into drugs and everything else, and actually this program saved my life. I lost my family and everything, but the way that I am looking at it now is, just ’cause they are blood, doesn’t mean they are family. And I am starting to find out actually who my family is.” 3

LGBT services and initiatives

LGBT l youth struggle to survive on a daily basis. For instance, lesbian, gay and bisexual  youth in BC experience higher levels of rejection, violence and discrimination in their families, schools and communities than heterosexual youth.4 LGBT youth also experience the particular challenges of living in a small city or rural town where there may be few resources to help reduce stress and anxiety that often arises. Additionally, they may not have positive role models.

Despite the trauma and isolation often faced by these youth, many show the ability to bounce back when given support, skills and relationships built through school, home and community settings. Family and school connectedness can help protect youth and lower risky behaviours.3

We will outline a few services and initiatives that are designed to promote mental health, reduce suicide and help LGBT youth in the BC Interior “bounce back.”

Safe Spaces is the main support and outreach service for LGBT youth (ages 14 to 25) in the Central Interior. It’s offered through Interior Community Services (ICS) and funded by the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD), Child and Youth Mental Health (CYMH) branch. While Safe Spaces works mainly with youth from Kamloops, youth who live up to 300 kilometres away have accessed this program.

LGBT youth view this service as “life-saving.”2 Kari, the part-time coordinator, facilitates weekly peer support and networking meetings in Kamloops, offers one-to-one mentoring appointments (drop-in or pre-booked), and gives workshops and presentations (on, e.g., homophobia, transphobia and heterosexism; diversity; let’s talk about sex...uality).

In 2008 alone, Kari gave 38 presentations in Kamloops and Chase to 625 youth, teachers and other adults attending community youth events. These events included, for example, Aboriginal girls’ groups, gay–straight alliances, and the Peer Helping conference for elementary and high school students.

Also in 2008, Kari facilitated 43 group sessions, including a new transgender group, which started in response to requests from trans youth wanting a separate group that could offer more support and privacy. The transgender group continues to meet on an as-needed basis.

Safe Spaces is getting more and more requests from rural communities—such as Ashcroft, 100 Mile House, Williams Lake, Barriere, Clearwater and Chase—for workshops and help starting their own weekly group meetings. Occasionally, youth from rural communities up to an hour away find their way to Safe Spaces in Kamloops by taking the bus or catching a ride with someone. Kari recently travelled 580 kilometres round trip to give a 3.5-hour presentation to 32 service providers and a handful of youth in Williams Lake. On her next visit, Kari will help these service providers move forward with their plans for a Safe Spaces group in Williams Lake.

Challenges related to funding and staffing do exist in smaller cities and rural towns. However, we are aware of a few other support groups and resource-sharing networks for LGBT youth in the Interior. For example, Outlet is a group that meets in several communities in the Kootenays, including Castlegar, Trail, Nelson and the Boundary region (see www.queerkootenays.com/resources.php). Unity LGBT2S is a group offered by the Kelowna Boys and Girls Club (contact club180@boysandgirlsclubs.ca or Jessica Henihan at 250-868-8541).

Interior Health (IH) also recognizes the need to support high-risk youth, in particular LGBT and Aboriginal youth. Due to high rates of suicide-related deaths and injuries for youth ages 15 to 24, IH created the position of population health facilitator. The focus of the facilitator (Jenny) is youth suicide prevention. Jenny works in partnership with communities, advocates and service providers across the health authority to promote the health and well-being of the entire youth population.

Additionally, Interior Health is looking at ways to support events such as a workshop on how to be inclusive of trans people. This event, sponsored by the Women’s Health Research Network, will be held in Kamloops on March 18, 2010.

Creative collaborations: LGBT youth voices are heard

Lacking resources for Safe Spaces programs, those working with LGBT youth have developed collaborative approaches to supporting youth. They do this through research, networking, sharing resources and providing opportunities for LGBT youth to have their voices heard. For example, LGBT youth have spoken with Thompson Rivers University (TRU) Bachelor of Social Work and Master of Education students—to the benefit of both groups. These classroom visits were a result of collaboration between Kari and Wendy (TRU faculty). Also, with funding from the Child and Youth Health Research Network, Natalie (also TRU faculty) brought Reel Youth to do claymation workshops at Safe Spaces in Kamloops and with her Aboriginal girls’ group in Chase.

LGBT youth from Kamloops and other communities in the Central Interior such as Merritt, Chase and Williams Lake have participated in research projects through Natalie and Wendy and their research centres at TRU. Projects focused on transitions, identity and community, and health and well-being.

Safe Spaces youth hosted a Café scientifique5—sponsored by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research—in May 2009 at their meeting location in downtown Kamloops. It was called “Being Queer Out Here: Improving Sexual Health and Building Community for Sexual Minority and Gender Variant Youth.” The speakers included Kari, Wendy and Dr. Jean Shoveller of the University of British Columbia (UBC). Thirty-five youth and adults attended.

There are strong ties between Safe Spaces and groups that help with family and school connectedness. These include gay–straight alliances (GSAs) in the high schools (there are up to five groups in Kamloops each year), Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (P-FLAG), GALA Kamloops (Gay and Lesbian Association) and TRU Pride. Kari attends meetings of the local GSAs and TRU Pride as frequently as possible. She also provides support to parents of LGBT youth, upon request.

Toward positive self-identity

Our research–practice collaboration includes a lesbian woman, a bisexual/queer (bi-queer) woman and two straight allies, each of whom has a role to play in supporting LGBT youth. We do this through modelling positive self-identity and by accepting youth where they’re at. We also advocate, not only for youth to find their voice, but for service providers to hear these youth and act on their stories of discrimination, rejection and violence. Our common goal is to make sure that LGBT youth live to become healthy adults who see themselves as positive role models and mentors for the next generation.

* Normally we would use the abbreviation LGBTTIQ to include all those identified, but shortened it to LGBT for this article.

 
About the author

Wendy is Assistant Professor of Social Work at Thompson Rivers University (TRU) and Coordinator of TRU’s Aging and Health Research Centre. She teaches courses on sexual diversity and aging, and does research with equity-seeking groups (e.g., LGBT youth, First Nation Elders, older women)

Footnotes:
  1. These quotes are from LGBTQ youth in the Central Interior who participated in two different research projects, one conducted by Wendy and Natalie, and the other by Natalie and two co-investigators. Data for the first project were presented at the CIHR Café scientifique on May 6, 2009, and the results of the second project were published in a project report, Listening to vulnerable youth transitioning into adulthood in British Columbia.

  2. Hulko, W., with Clark, N. (2009, May). ‘You need some sort of special key’: Identifying as LGBTQ and finding community in small cities and towns. Presentation at CIHR Café scientifique, Kamloops, BC.

  3.  Leadbetter, B., Smith, A. & Clark, N. (2008, November). Listening to vulnerable youth transitioning to adulthood in British Columbia. Victoria: BC Child and Youth Health Research Network. www.cyhrnet.ca.

  4. Saewyc, E., Poon, C., Wang, N. et al. (2007). Not yet equal: The health of lesbian, gay, & bisexual youth in BC. Vancouver: McCreary Centre Society.

  5. Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Café scientifique: www.cihr-irsc.gc.ca/e/34951.html.